Another day, another successful prosecution of a ship intentionally polluting the ocean!
A Cypriot ship management company is being fined $2 million after it was discovered that their tanker Ridgebury Alexandra Z has been dumping oily waste into the ocean without first running it through an oil water separator. They were also found guilty of falsifying their oil record book.
What’s notable about this case is that the engineers Ridgebury Alexandra Z created a system to bypass their oil water separator that was far more advanced than a typical magic pipe, which simply diverts the wastewater around the separation system. Instead they created a method that ran clean water through the ship’s sensors, while actually dumping the real wastewater straight overboard. The pollution system on the ship then recorded the false number based on the clean water, which made their records appear normal, despite the 90,000 gallons of untreated waste water that was dumped into the ocean.
Coast Guard inspectors caught wind that something was fishy, and began an investigation. The owners of the Ridgebury Alexandra Z pled guilty, and in addition to the $2 million fine, they were given four years of probation, and made to implement an environmental compliance plan for all ships that will enter the United States.
As ships find new ways to circumvent the law in their quest to save money by polluting the ocean, law enforcement is there to match them every step of the way. If you see something similar happening on your ship, remember that there are many ways to report illegal dumping to the US Coast Guard and other authorities, and rewards for whistleblowers who help bring about successful prosecutions.
There is a growing awareness that tiny pieces of plastic, known as microplastics, are now widespread in the world's oceans -- but we are only just beginning to understand its impacts on marine life.
Several recent studies by scientists around the world are revealing that microplastics, defined as pieces of plastic smaller than 5 millimeters, are now present throughout the ocean food chain, and are being eaten and transferred from tiny zooplankton, to fish, and upwards to the turtles and seals that feed upon them.
One recent study by researchers at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory analyzed scat from captive grey seals, which had been fed wild-caught Atlantic mackerel. One third of the mackerel and fully half of the scat samples from the seals contained microplastic, showing how these tiny synthetic particles move upward thought the food chain.
“Our finding that microplastic can be passed from fish to marine top predators is something we’ve long thought was the case but, until now, lacked the evidence to back our theory up," says Sarah Nelms, the study's lead author in a university news release. "We have shown that trophic transfer is an indirect, yet potentially major route of microplastic ingestion for these predators."
Microplastics have many potential sources. Larger plastic debris can degrade into smaller and smaller pieces, and synthetic fabrics like polyester fleece shed micro plastic fibers every time it is washed. Other potential sources include cigarette filters, toothbrushes, discarded fishing nets, tires, and microbeads, which are tiny pieces of manufactured polyethylene plastic that are added as exfoliants to health and beauty products, such as some cleansers and toothpastes.
"By examining scat from captive animals and the digestive tracts of fish they were fed upon," says Nelms, "we could eliminate the possibility that the seals were eating plastic directly and be sure that any microplastics we found in their scat came via the fish.”
A similar study on fur seals living in the wild by Cristóbal Galbán-Malagón, a professor in ecology and biodiversity at the Universidad Andrés Bello in Chile, also found plastic microfibers in the scat of fur seals on Guafo Island, a remote island off the Southwest coast of Chile. Galbán-Malagón, after collecting scat from wild fur seals and dissolving the organic materials using lye, found that 67% of the samples contained traces of plastic.
Of course, it's not just tiny bits of plastic that are contaminating the ocean environment. Researchers at New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) recently reported that they have recovered a working USB stick photos inside a chunk of seal scat that has been frozen in their lab since 2017.
Dr. Krista Hupman runs a volunteer network via LeopardSeals.org where helpful Kiwis can send in leopard seal scat for her lab to analyze. In November 2017 a local vet sent in a sample from Oreti Beach, Invercargill, which was frozen, and then thawed for analysis just three weeks ago. Inside the sample two volunteers discovered the USB stick, which, once dried out, worked perfectly well.
Somewhat ironically, once dried it was discovered that stick contained photos of sea lions at nearby Porpoise Bay. NIWA would be happy to return the stick, should the owner come forward.
“From our work over the years we have found microplastic in nearly all the species of marine animals we have looked at," explains Dr Penelope Lindeque, a lead researcher on microplastic at Plymouth Marine Laboratory, who was involved in a 2018 study that found synthetic plastic particles present in seven different species of turtles, collected in the Atlantic, Pacific and Mediterranean. The list of impacted creatures now spans the marine food chain from tiny zooplankton at the base of the food web, to fish larvae, and upwards to include mackerels, dolphins, turtles, and seals.
“Our study demonstrates how microplastic can be transferred from prey to predator and therefore passed up through the food chain," says Dr. Lindeque. "More work is needed to understand the extent to which microplastics are ingested by wild animals and what impacts they may have upon the animals and ecosystems.”
Interested in learning more about marine debris? You can check out our pages on the subject right here! And if you’re reading this from New Zealand and would like to help the effort to collect leopard seal scat, you can find out how here.